The Problem With Business Networking Groups

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Most business networking groups are a waste of time and money.

Many of the business owners and managers that I talk to every week dutifully shell out hundreds of dollars to each one of these groups – thousands of dollars if they participate in several groups. Just in Dallas we have BNI groups, LeTip, NAWBO, Breakfast Dallas, Leads Unlimited, numerous Chamber-sponsored networking groups, plus groups specifically for women, Hispanics, African-Americans, salespeople, technology professionals, etc., etc., etc.

Yet most folks can’t think of many customers they’ve gotten through the group…it isn’t where they looked for their attorney or accountant…and it isn’t where they’re finding like-minded peers to serve as soundingboards. If they’ve gotten a few good contacts, it’s often not nearly enough to justify their investment.

My Diagnosis:

1. Most people have a naive and misguided view of what networking is and how it works.

They measure their sales and marketing success by how many business cards they get and give. They should be measuring success by how many mutually helpful relationships they’re creating and maintaining.

Whether you sell to businesses or consumers, people do business with those they know, like and trust. Self-serving sales pitches and compulsive swapping of contacts with strangers or bare acquaintances doesn’t even come close to meeting that standard.

2. Most people don’t utilize networking meetings appropriately.

I host a monthly breakfast for Dallas business owners. Most months we have at least a few attendees who show up, drone on and on about their businesses (including product details and pricing!), hand out their cards, and then bug everyone with sales calls a day or two later. People I’ve never met or spoken to have RSVP’d for the breakfast and emailed me unsolicited product literature before they even showed up for the breakfast!

One attendee sold telephone services. She pitched me (at the breakfast!) on how much Radial could save on using her company for multi-line business telephone services. If she had ever paused for breath, she would’ve quickly discovered that our biggest communications expense is web-based conferencing. If she had a cost-effective solution for THAT, we’d have a reason to at least talk!

Folks like this completely fail to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the networking meeting. Did they bother to find out anything about my business when they met me in person? Nope. Their follow-on sales calls were generic and completely unconnected to anything on my “problem list”. They might as well have picked Radial out of the phone book – what was the point of attending the breakfast?

3. Here’s another way people go wrong.

A graphic designer wanted me to start recommending her to Radial clients who needed design services. I’m always interested in finding great new resources – but remember what I said about “know, like and trust.” I would never suggest a resource to one of Radial’s clients or customers when I didn’t “know, like and trust” them already.

It’s going to take more than a quick breakfast and a sales pitch to get me there. And standing up for 1-2 minutes every week and giving me your elevator speech doesn’t produce “like and trust” either. It’s going to take an actual relationship – where you follow through a few times on things that show you get what my business is about, I follow through a few times to show I understand your business, and we can tell over time that we have shared values and work ethics.

4. Here’s what the folks who get it right are doing.

They focus more on everyone else’s story and less on talking about themselves. A couple of days later I’ll often hear from one of them with a sensible and helpful referral or contact suggestion, or even just a clipping on a relevant topic. I can tell they were really paying attention, and they’re genuinely trying to do something helpful. They’re not just checking off the box that says “stay in touch with Leslie”.

And I’m very interested in helping people who genuinely help me – it makes both our businesses stronger, plus it really feels good on a personal level.

My advice: before you invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in these groups, make sure you understand what networking really is and how it works best. Realize that it’s not about going through the motions of relationship-building – it’s about actually listening and doing helpful things for other people, while making the leap of faith that your good deeds will be repaid in the future, one way or another.

And remember too – it’s not enough for YOU to have these skills. If the other people in your networking group don’t understand how it works – or simply don’t have good contacts and referrals – you still won’t see results.

I’ll be happy to provide reading recommendations to anyone who’s interested – just drop me an email or post your request in this blog’s comment section.